Today the fight to pick up Trump’s supporters continued. Eleven senators, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), said they would object to certifying certain state electoral votes when Congress meets on Wednesday, January 6, to count them. They want a commission appointed to audit the results. This attempt is separate from the one launched yesterday by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) to object to the counting of the electoral votes from Pennsylvania, but both are a transparent attempt to court Trump voters before 2022 and 2024.
The senators signing onto the effort are: Ron Johnson (R-WI), James Lankford (R-OK), Steve Daines (R-MT), John Kennedy (R-LA), Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), and Mike Braun (R-IN), and Senators-Elect Cynthia Lummis (R-WY), Roger Marshall (R-KS), Bill Hagerty (R-TN), and Tommy Tuberville (R-AL).
President-Elect Joe Biden’s transition spokesperson Michael Gwin called their efforts a “stunt.” He isn’t wrong. This plan is unfounded. Biden won the election by more than 7 million votes and by a margin of 306 to 232 in the Electoral College. The Trump campaign tried to challenge the results in the courts, and lost or had dismissed for lack of evidence 60 out of 61 cases, including two they tried to take to the Supreme Court, where three justices appointed by Trump himself sit. Although Trump supporters grabbed headlines with their accusations of irregularities and fraud when they made them in conference rooms and in parking lots in front of landscaping companies, they could produce no evidence in courtrooms, where there are penalties for lying. The suggestion that there is somehow a problem with this election, when they could produce no evidence of wrongdoing in front of judges in 60 cases, is laughable.
But there is more to their efforts than just creating a show to attract the future support of Trump voters. The attempt of these Trump Republicans to launch yet another baseless investigation is in keeping with their use of investigations to discredit Democrats since at least the 2012 attack on two U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans. Ten investigations of the circumstances that led to that attack resulted in no evidence that members of the Obama administration acted inappropriately in that crisis. But the constant repetition of accusations convinced many Americans that something had gone terribly wrong and Obama’s people, especially Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, were to blame.
As House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, then in running for Speaker of the House, said to Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity in 2015, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened, had we not fought.”
The repeated Republican investigations into then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails were similar. Although the State Department’s final report on Clinton’s email use, issued in October 2019, declared there was no systematic or deliberate mishandling of classified information, the constant barrage of accusations made the email story the most important story of the 2016 election. It outweighed all the scandals involving then-candidate Donald Trump: the ones involving sexual assault, financial corruption, mocking of a disabled reporter, attacks on immigrants, and so on.
A study by Duncan J. Watts and David M. Rothschild in the Columbia Journalism Review noted that in the 2016 election season there were 65,000 sentences in the media about Clinton’s email use but only 40,000 about all of Trump’s scandals combined. There were twice as many sentences about Clinton’s emails than about her policies. The authors wrote, “in just six days, the New York Times ran as many cover stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails as they did about all policy issues combined in the 69 days leading up to the election.” The email scandal likely cost Clinton the 2016 election, and even now, after the State Department cleared her of wrongdoing, many Americans still think Clinton mishandled classified information in her emails.
Trump tried the same tactic in 2020. Smearing an opponent through investigations was at the heart of the Ukraine scandal of 2019. Trump pressured new Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky, not to start an investigation of Hunter Biden and the company on whose board he had sat, but rather simply to announce that he was starting an investigation. An announcement would be enough to get picked up by the American news media so that story after story would convince voters that Hunter Biden and, by extension, his father, were involved in corruption, even without evidence.
Then, just before the election, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani drummed up the story that Hunter Biden had left a laptop that contained incriminating evidence against both Bidens at a repair shop, and Republican leadership clamored for investigations– this time to no avail because the story was so outrageous.
Now, they are alleging the need for an investigation into irregularities in the 2020 election, although they have failed repeatedly to produce any evidence of such irregularities in court. Their argument is that the country needs an investigation to relieve people’s worries about the legitimacy of the election, but those worries have been created precisely by the unjustified accusations of Republican leaders. An investigation would simply convince people that the election results are questionable. They are not.
The attempt of the senators to get Congress to appoint an investigatory committee into alleged fraud in the election is dangerous and unprecedented, and they know it. In their statement, they tried to suggest they are simply following the precedent established by Congress after the chaotic 1876 election, but the two situations are very different.
In 1876, elections were organized by the parties themselves and were notoriously corrupt. Parties printed their own ballots in a distinctive color with only their own slate of electors. Men dropped the ballots for their party, unmarked, into a box, but their votes were not secret: how men voted was obvious from the colored ballots, at the very least. Politicians watching the polls knew exactly what the counts would be, and it was not unusual for ballot boxes to be either stuffed or broken open before results were reported.
In Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina in 1876, Democrats appeared to have won the election, but there was no dispute that they had terrorized Republican voters to keep them from the polls. The results were a hopeless mess: in South Carolina, for example, 101% of all eligible voters cast ballots. Florida and Louisiana both reported more reasonable numbers of voters, but they each sent competing sets of electors to Congress. In both states, different officials signed off on different certificates of election, so it was not at all clear which certificate was the official one. In this utter confusion, Congress established a committee to figure out what had actually happened.*
None of that is the case today. The processes were transparent and observed by Republicans as well as Democrats. The Trump campaign had the right to challenge vote counts and did so; each turned up virtually the same result as the original count: Biden won, by a lot. Each state in the country has delivered to Congress certified results that have been signed by the state governors, who nowadays have the final say in the state certification process.
This should be a done deal. But Trump Republicans are trying to undermine the election, and Biden’s administration, with a disinformation campaign. This is about more than this particular election. It is clear that a faction of today’s Republican Party refuses to accept the legitimacy of a Democratic president, no matter how big the victory. They are working to smear Biden by investigation, as has become their signature move.
Democracy depends on a willingness to transfer power peacefully from one group of leaders to another. By revealing that they refuse to do so, the members of the “Sedition Caucus,” as they are being called on social media, are proving they are unworthy of elected office.
*Michael Holt, By One Vote: The Disputed Presidential Election of 1876, p. 255